The origins and history of the Mazatec are little known. They are possibly descendants of the Nonoalca-Chichimeca who emigrated from Tula at the beginning of the twelfth century, settling in the highlands in the villages of Teotitlán, Eloxochitlán, Mazatlán, and Chinchotla. According to other scholars, the Mazatec already inhabited the area before the arrival of the Nonoalca-Chichimeca, who subdued them around the year 1170. In 1300 the Mazatec freed themselves, founding two kingdoms: one in the highlands, or the East, and another in the lowlands, or West.
Before the arrival of the Spaniards, these kingdoms were invaded and subordinate by the Mexica (Aztec) Empire between 1455 and 1456, during the reign of Montezuma Ilhuicamina. Military posts were established in Teotitlán and Tuxtepec, and there tribute was collected. The first Spanish conquerors arrived in Mazatec territory in 1520, at which time the process of evangelization was begun by the Franciscans, who founded the first church in Teotitlán in 1542.
The Mazatec have participated actively in two major social movements in Mexico during the last two centuries, the War of Independence and the Revolution of 1910.
In 1954 a gigantic development project was begun in the area, of which the Papaloapan Commission (dependent on the federal government) was in charge. This brought about momentous changes for the Mazatec. Hydroelectric dams were built, which, besides helping to control the great cyclical floods of the Rio Papaloapan, provided the basic infrastructure for the area's economic development. This scheme focused on the lowlands and favored the development of cattle raising and commercial agriculture for export. Large tracts of the jungle were cut down, the monoculture of sugarcane was promoted, and private banks supported the development of pasture for cattle. In the process, the territorial and cultural unity of the Mazatec was severed: approximately 22,000 villagers who inhabited the basin of the Miguel Aleman dam were moved and relocated to five areas in the states of Oaxaca and Veracruz, some 250 kilometers away from their traditional habitat. With the construction of the dam, the lowland Mazatec lost 500 square kilometers, equivalent to 50 percent of their cultivable land.
In the highlands, on the other hand, where the emphasis was on coffee production, the infrastructure and services were left relatively undeveloped.